Wow. It’s hard to know how to feel after watching this movie. On one hand, you’ll feel physically exhausted having watched one of the most trying-to-be-funny, but not quite there movies to come along in a while. On the other hand, you can’t help but feel bad for these typically funny actors working with horrible material.
The conceit is alright, I guess: John Lyshitski (Dax Shepard) is a career criminal and blames his wasted life on the judge that sent him to a juvenile correction facility when he was 8 and then later to prison when he grew up. Once he gets out, he makes it his mission to kill that judge only to find that the judge has already passed away from natural causes, leaving Lyshitski frustrated and blocked. Luckily for him, the judge has a snobby son who happens to be a jerk, Nelson Bierderman IV (Will Arnett). Due to Lyshitski’s machinations, Biederman finds himself tangled with the law and then sent to prison. Lyshitski gets himself thrown into prison (again) just to make sure that Biederman suffers in the way he wants him to. It’s a bit long winded, but there are worse premises with shorter descriptions.
Once the characters get to prison, which takes longer than is comfortable, comedy is supposed to ensue, but it doesn’t. Instead, we’re stuck having only marginally funny jokes hammered into our skulls over and over again. It’s almost as if the writers were banking on the audience not laughing the first time through the joke, so they thought they’d repeat it several times in case the audience didn’t know it was a joke. For instance, the warden’s introduction involves his instructions on what inmates can do with letters to him regarding their treatment at the prison, which is to stick it up their asses. That’s mediocre writing the first time we hear it. It becomes total crap when the warden has to go through each form of correspondence with the same instruction. Later, there’s a montage of someone getting punched in the face over and over again. Not funny.
One of the problems here is that we have to accept the political views of the film in order for the story to affect us in the intended manner. As such, we need to believe that the judicial system is an evil entity that actually creates criminals rather than simply putting them away. That way we can laugh with Lyshitski as Biederman gets eaten alive by the system. If, on the other hand, you think that Lyshitski deserved to go to jail for his crimes as a youth, then watching him punish Biederman just makes you feel bad. And while the film tries to have you side with its views, starting off with visuals and factoids about the absurdity of the prison system, it’s not enough.
Another problem is the bipolar behavior of Lyshitski. While it’s acceptable that he would pretend to be friendly with Biederman in order to gain his confidence before betraying him, more often than not, Lyshitski goes out of his way to do unnecessary things to help Biederman, which come off as genuine friendship. One moment Lyshitski is trying to have Biederman killed, the next moment he’s teaching him how to be tough and cope with prison life. At one point, he even saves Biederman from getting raped in the shower. What? Why? These scenes turn out more confusing than funny.
A quicker pace definitely would have helped. Director Bob Odenkirk should have wrangled in his actors and spent a few more weeks in the editing room. As it is, there’s too much exposition in the beginning and supposedly comedic scenes last too long or lose their funny edge. Prison is already an absurd place. In order to make a funny movie about something absurd, you need to be ultra-absurd. Let’s Go to Prison falls short of that goal and comes off a little too realistic.
I take issue with the ending as well. Not only are we forced to watch an Ocean’s Whatever type of ending where the “scenes behind/between the scenes” are revealed, but the tacked on happy ending smacks of producer tampering. Everyone wants to be part of the creative process these days, but in this case too many chefs may have spoiled the soup.